Hydrogen fuel – Blessing, Curse or Hope?

Last updated on March 21st, 2018

With rising awareness of environmental pollution due to cars, the onus has been on car manufacturers to produce vehicles that do not emit fewer greenhouse gases. Electric vehicles have been a roaring success. They are a common sight around the globe.

Electric vehicles do have a fair few drawbacks as well. Recharging them takes ages and the range they offer is, more often than not, unsatisfactory. They are also more expensive as compared to normal cars. Their engines are not that powerful and have restricted their use to small-to-medium passenger cars only.

Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs) are said to be the next big thing in eco-friendly vehicles. These use fuel cells containing the highly combustible hydrogen gas. The gas powers the battery by burning in the presence of oxygen. This powers an engine similar to the ones found in Electric Vehicles (EVs).

So what’s so special about them? Well, for starters you won’t have any of those awkward moments where you’re delaying your departure as you wait for your car to charge up. Refueling FCVs takes up to a maximum of 10 minutes. Besides this, the claimed range of most FCVs is nearly double that of its electric contemporaries. They have a better power output and can be used in a variety of vehicle types. Their only emissions are heat and pure steam.

So what’s the problem? Well, there are several. For starters, while these eco-friendly automobiles may not be leaking any pollutants into the atmosphere; the same can’t be said of the hydrogen that powers them. Hydrogen can be obtained in a clean manner by reversing the electrolysis process of water. This, however, requires a tremendous amount of energy, which has a direct and significant effect on the operating costs. The way most hydrogen fuel is currently obtained is by methane reforming. This process has harmful by-products like carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Methane – which is 86 times as potent as CO2 as a greenhouse gas – leaks are known to have occurred during the production of hydrogen.

Next is cost.  Toyota is planning to release its first FCV offering in the state of California at $499 a month on a 3-year lease. Toyota EVs can be rented for less than half that price. Refueling can be a cumbersome activity. EV recharging centers are ubiquitous. FCVs can be refueled at barely 50 locations around the country. Although that number is expected to rise in the future, it’s going to be a tough ordeal. Hydrogen is notoriously difficult to handle and store. It cannot be stored underground and is stored in above-ground tanks in a liquid state at temperatures ranging around -250°C (-418°F). All this place makes keeping an FCV functional a highly expensive exercise. On average, an EV-charging station costs around $300,000. Cheap as compared to $1-2 million for a hydrogen refueling station.

All this being said, hydrogen fuel for cars is still a concept in its infancy. There is scope for a lot of development in the technology. tests are Already being conducted on using solar energy to split water. This process will make the production clean hydrogen considerably cheaper. They may not be the best choices available at the moment, but FCVs will surely rule the roads a few years down the line.

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